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Church Must ID Parishioner Who Labeled Boy an Abuser

(CN) - A Catholic diocese cannot use the clergy-penitent privilege to withhold a letter that allegedly accuses an underage parishioner of molesting a younger boy, an Illinois appeals court wrote.

All of the individuals involved in the case are referred to pseudonymously in the decision, which describes a letter that someone wrote two years ago to the pastor of a church in Kane County, Ill.

Jamie Doe says the letter "contained several false accusations" against her minor son, J. Doe, including that he "engaged in a sexual touching against another child" and that one of J.'s parents "admitted the improper sexual contact."

The letter also allegedly described J as older and larger than the child he touched, and says that J. threatened to hurt the child if the conduct was revealed.

Doe says an attorney for the Catholic Diocese of Rockford in turn sent her a letter, indicating that the church would begin investigating her son pursuant to its sexual-misconduct standards.

Claiming that the letter was defamatory and caused her son to be "isolated and ostracized in the community, including the parish community," Doe sued the diocese and the church pastor.

She sought an order to produce a copy of the letter, which the church allegedly supposedly characterized as describing an incident that involved "more than just two boys checking each other out."

Doe says the letter explicitly accuses her son of having "touched and fondled another boy's private parts."

In trying to have the case dismissed, the diocese contended that clergy-penitent privilege shields the letter. The pastor said a parishioner wrote the letter seeking counsel as a parish volunteer whose responsibilities involve monitoring children.

The church appealed when Judge David Akemann found that it had to identify the writer of the letter though it could shield the letter itself.

A three-judge panel of the Second Department Illinois Court of Appeals affirmed.

Though the diocese complained that the phrase "sexual touching" was too imprecise to support Doe's claim, the court found it "clear that petitioner means that the writer averred that J. Doe committed an improper sexual act against the other, younger child."

"Although a 'sexual touching' could mean only that the two children were engaging in a normal, consensual exploration, we note that the writer further stated that J. Doe's parent 'admitted' that the conduct amounted to 'improper sexual contact," Judge Joseph Birkett wrote for the court..

The court found the clergy-penitent privilege inapplicable to this situation.

"The writer was a volunteer for a religious-education program conducted by the parish and had the responsibility for monitoring the children in the program," the Sept. 4 ruling states. "In our view, at least on the present record, the statements in issue are simply not of the character of a confession or admission for which the writer was seeking spiritual guidance."

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